Saturday, January 14, 2012

What Do You Mean by "Sinner"?

We often define sin as a “mistake.” When we say that we are sinners, or that everyone is a sinner, what our culture often means by that is that we are people who make mistakes. This is clear from the statement that usually follows an accusation leveled against them: “Everyone is a sinner. I’ve made mistakes but I’m a good person.” I think the identification of sin as “mistake” clearly seeks to remove the responsibility from me and place it on circumstance. Let me explain why.

When I spill some milk, I make the mistake of judging the circumstance (where the milk is in relationship to my hand, forgetting that the milk is there, being distracted by other things). It is the circumstance that has distracted me.
I also make mistakes on math tests. I may study hard and try my best, but because of my natural limitations, that are not really my fault, mistakes are made. “Nobody is perfect,” we often say.

What this creates is a whole lot of people who think that they've confessed to be sinners when they really are still proudly adhering to their own righteousness. They say that they are sinners, but really believe that they're just good people making mistakes.

But this isn’t what the Bible means when it says we are sinners. The Bible isn’t saying we just make mistakes because of some no-fault circumstance of our limited nature. It does not mean that our environment is to blame, so that, again, we are only minimally at fault. One often thinks of sin this way when he reads Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Now, this translation makes it sound like we almost made it. We were almost at the glory of God, but just fell short. But this isn’t what this verse is saying. The Greek word hystereō means “to lack,” “to have a deficiency of.” What this means is that this verse is really saying that we don’t have the glory of God that was given to us in creation (see Ps 8). Instead, when it says that all have sinned, it explains what that means in the context. Let’s look at it.

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;
as it is written,
"There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one."
"Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,"
"The poison of asps is under their lips";
"Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness";
"Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known."
"There is no fear of God before their eyes."
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;
because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law [comes] the knowledge of sin.

Notice that our sin is described by Paul’s pulling together of numerous texts from the OT that he then applies to all people, everywhere.
First, the text tells us that we are not righteous, i.e., people who do what is right and in good standing with God. We don’t get it. We’re clueless as to what good is, and as such, we have all become worthless in our deeds, not knowing what good is, and that good must seek God in order to do good. None of us does that if left to ourselves. So there is no one who is a good person, not even one. No one does what is right, not even one. No one is acceptable to God, not even one.

The very first thing we must notice, then, is that when the Bible calls us sinners, it’s calling us evil people, evil people who are not good people, people who are not acceptable to God, people who redefine that nature of good that is not a God-seeking good, and people who have all turned aside to our own ways and become worthless in terms of doing any real good in the world. Hence, to say one is a sinner is to say that one is not a good person. We cannot then say we are all sinners, but that I am a good person. That is a completely contradictory statement in biblical terms. Hence, contrary to the flow of our modern Jungian influenced culture, to say we are sinners is to say that we are bad people, all of us, without exception.

The second thing we notice is that we are all deceivers. As I spoke about in the last post, our false views lead people away from Christ and His gospel either by pointing them to different religious and worldview ideas, or by arguing that following Christ explicitly through the gospel He proclaimed is not necessary to be saved. We deceive ourselves, but even worse, this passage points out that, as sinners, we become the deceivers of others by what we say.

Third, we curse and are embittered against the truth by nature. This is why we deceive others. We love what is a lie and hate what is true, as the truth shines a light on us, and we are hostile toward it. It testifies to us that we are not good people, we feel judged and don't like our lie exposed, and we then curse and are embittered toward the one who brings the truth to us.

Fourth, we are murderers. If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “Well, at least I’m not a murderer,” you’ve heard a false statement made. Our deceptions of other people have contributed toward their destruction both in this life and the one to come. We have murdered them with our Christless life that we justify with our lies. And we have comfort in this, as the more we get on our side, the better we feel about justifying a life that is unacceptable to God.

Finally, all of this is done because God is not feared (i.e., they do not recognize God’s authority in their lives by living according to what He has revealed). There is no honor of God in the truth and vindication of what He has spoken. They shun it at every turn, and thus become false humanity, the murderers who deceive each other by cheering one another on down their wayward paths to destruction.

This is what a sinner is. It is not merely someone who makes a mistake. It is an evil person, a bad person, a person who is not acceptable to God, a liar, a murderer, who rejects the authority of God to rule his or her life.

Sound like people who deserve hell to you? It does to God, as He has revealed as much in His Word.

So which sinner have you really confessed to be when you said the “sinner’s prayer,” or confess to be a sinner in prayer? Are you the person who just made some mistakes in your life, or are you worthless toward doing any good, incapable of being acceptable in the sight of God, a liar and a murderer, whose life does not gain salvation, nor could it ever do so? Are you a person who just spills some milk, or are you a person who has no hope of being saved, because no murderer will enter the kingdom of God?

If you are a sinner of the former variety, you can know for sure that, according to this passage, you have never acknowledged your hopelessness before God. You probably argue that you’re still a good person, and that other people are equally good people. You likely think other people can be saved in other religions (why not, everyone makes mistakes and yet is still good enough that God would save them). According to this passage, however, you have no hope of the promise that comes after this passage, or living for Christ, as Paul will then argue after this. You are still relying on your own Law, yet the Law of God, seen both through conscience and explicitly revealed in the Mosaic Law, can only condemn you. That Law sits over all, even those who would abridge it to accommodate their lifestyles, who do not come to Christ with empty hands. The Law shows that our claim to be good people is just one of our lies that we tell to justify ourselves and each other. It exposes the deception and shines a light on us, so that we can then know that we are not merely a few feet short of the mark of goodness, but the worst of murderers, destroying everyone in our paths.

But if you are a sinner of the latter variety, and you have acknowledged that you have no hope before God, that you cannot be saved as you are, that you will not enter the Kingdom of God, this promise is for you:

But now apart from the Law [the] righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, that is, the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and lack the glory of God, [instead] being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. [This was] to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the tolerance of God He overlooked the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, [I say], of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.  Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Hence, a man must be justified by faith in Jesus, and cannot be saved by being a good person, because there are no good people. Everyone, whether within the community of God or outside of it (Jew or Gentile) is shut up under the Law, and it merely exposes that we are much worse, completely unacceptable, worthless toward any good deed, liars and murders whose actions do not recognize God’s authority as supreme in what we decide to believe and do. As sinners, we are without hope. We will be damned. There is no question about it; but the good news of Jesus Christ is that God has loved us, even while we were sinners, and has chosen us to be His sons, so that we might be saved through our faith in Jesus Christ. Only in Him is our hope again kindled.

So when we say that we are sinners, this is what the Bible means by it. The question still remains, however, “Is this what you mean?”

But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (Gal 3:22)

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

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